Railroad entrepreneur R.J. Corman dies at 58

gkocher@herald-leader.comvhoneycutt@herald-leader.comAugust 23, 2013 

  • Services for Mr. Corman

    Visitation for Mr. Corman will be from 1 p.m. to 8 p.m. Sunday in Hangar 1 on the property of R.J. Corman Railroad Group, 101 R.J. Corman Drive, Nicholasville. Funeral services will be at 4 p.m. Monday, also at the hangar; the front gate will be open at 2:30 p.m.

    In lieu of flowers, donations are requested to the Richard Corman Research Fund in Multiple Myeloma, Dana-Farber Cancer Institute, P.O. Box 849168, Boston, MA 02284-9168.

R.J. "Rick" Corman, the Jessamine County entrepreneur who built a backhoe business into a multimillion-dollar railroad and construction company, died Friday. He was 58.

Company spokesman Noel Rush said Mr. Corman died about 11 a.m. at his home in Nicholasville. Rush said the company's officials would have a statement later.

University of Kentucky men's basketball coach John Calipari, a friend of Mr. Corman, posted on Twitter shortly after noon: "I'm not in the frame of mind to talk about it right now, but I will shortly. Rest in peace, my good friend."

Calipari also tweeted, "It's been a tough day."

Later on his website, Coachcal.com, Calipari said Mr. Corman had become a "brother."

Central Bank president and CEO Luther Deaton said Mr. Corman "was the best friend I had in the world.

"I've never known anybody as determined to do what's right and live a good life and help so many people around him," Deaton said.

Mr. Corman had been diagnosed in 2001 with multiple myeloma, a type of blood cancer that attacks the plasma cells in bone marrow and destroys bones. The same disease took the lives of Wal-Mart founder Sam Walton in 1992 and former vice-presidential candidate Geraldine Ferraro in 2011.

As the founder and sole owner of R.J. Corman Railroad Group, Mr. Corman presided over the Nicholasville-based company that became one of only two major companies offering 24-hour emergency derailment cleanup for railways.

The company employs more than 1,100 people in 22 states. In a profile of Mr. Corman published in March 2011, Fortune magazine estimated the company's 2010 annual revenues at $300 million and after-tax profits at $50 million.

[Read the Fortune profile]

In that same article, senior editor-at-large Carol Loomis, who later co-wrote a 2012 book with corporate titan Warren Buffett, said she realized that Mr. Corman "just might be — apologies here to the Reader's Digest, which popularized this title — the Most Unforgettable Character I've Ever Met in my more than half-century at Fortune. ... In the way he operates — and faces the world — Rick Corman is truly larger than life."

That persona was reflected in the company's steel-and-glass headquarters and aircraft hangar on the U.S. 27 Bypass in Nicholasville, which hosted chamber of commerce dinners and fund-raisers. In 2010, former President Bill Clinton spoke there as part of a fund-raising dinner for the Lexington Hearing & Speech Center.

Behind the hangar is a landing strip where Calipari and UK football coach Mark Stoops arrived in the commonwealth aboard a Corman jet.

Calipari and Mr. Corman became good friends, and Calipari would occasionally solicit prayers for him through Twitter. Calipari once tweeted this: "Had my birthday breakfast with my friend Rick Corman @WaffleHouse. What's better than that?"

Calipari and Mr. Corman were picked as the No. 1 and No. 3 most influential people in the Lexington area by Herald-Leader readers in poll results released in March 2013. Lexington Mayor Jim Gray was No. 2.

"The first person Ellen and I met when I took the job at the University of Kentucky was Rick Corman," Calipari wrote Friday.

"He sent his plane to Memphis to pick us up and take us back to Lexington for our introduction. He was on the plane with us, and we spent the next hour and a half talking about anything other than basketball. He made it very clear from the start that he knew nothing about the sport. My wife instantly loved him.

"Over the next couple of years, Rick became my brother."

Better and faster

Richard Jay Corman grew up in a house near his company's corporate headquarters. His father, Jay Corman, was a state highway worker who retired as an assistant foreman making $6.25 an hour. His mother, Maudie Corman, was a homemaker.

His paternal grandfather, Carl Corman, made 11-year-old Rick a 25 percent partner in a business that hauled cattle, hogs and junk. After graduating from high school in 1973, Mr. Corman learned the excavation business through his uncle, Clay Corman, and then bought a backhoe and a dump truck to pick up whatever jobs he could.

The dump truck was red, which, along with silver, became the signature colors for every locomotive, truck, helicopter and jet plane in the R.J. Corman fleet.

"You can't be good if you don't look good," Mr. Corman told Fortune magazine.

Mr. Corman's first exposure to the railroad business came when he was hired to do backhoe work for the old L&N Railroad, digging out and repairing railroad crossings. He developed a reputation for doing that work better and faster.

The seeds for the growth of the Corman empire were planted in 1984, when Congress began deregulating the railroad industry with what is known as the Staggers Act. Larger railroads began to get rid of small stretches of unprofitable rail line. They also began to farm out maintenance, construction, derailment cleanups and other costly jobs to specialized, and often non-union, organizations like Mr. Corman's.

His first acquisition as a railroad owner was a 20-mile short line he bought in 1987 in the Bardstown area from the old L&N Railroad. On that stretch, he started My Old Kentucky Dinner Train in 1988.

Using a rail car that was part of President Dwight D. Eisenhower's 1969 funeral cortege, the dinner train takes excursions through the rolling countryside north of Bardstown as diners feast on prime rib or barbecued scallops.

In 1996, R.J. Corman Railroad Group acquired the Allentown and Pennsylvania lines from Conrail, a reorganized set of railroads that had gone into bankruptcy in the 1970s.

"There was so much repair work necessary to get them back to where they needed to be," Mr. Corman told the Herald-Leader in 2004.

R.J. Corman Railroad Group operates more than 600 miles of short-line railroads, which carry peanuts, aluminum ingots, alcohol, paper, plastic, fertilizer, limestone, scrap paper, bricks, corn syrup and oil.

In late 2011, Mr. Corman entered into a partnership with Toyota to provide railcar switching, vehicle shuttling and loading, and track maintenance at the automaker's Corolla manufacturing plant in Blue Springs, Miss.

After Hurricane Katrina devastated the Gulf Coast in 2005, R.J. Corman Railroad Group restored 40 miles of CSX track in Mississippi and Louisiana and rebuilt seven CSX bridges. The company also participated in the cleanup and reconstruction of CSX's Gentilly railroad yard in New Orleans.

"We couldn't afford to fail," Mr. Corman said in 2006. "There was a giant bull's-eye on our forehead. The whole industry was watching."

The company's "storm team" also fixed railroads damaged by other hurricanes, floods and blizzards from Texas to Vermont.

Closer to home, Mr. Corman was known for his annual Fourth of July picnic. Thousands of invited guests went to his Jessamine County farm to partake of summer fixings, while thousands more watched the evening fireworks from the surrounding countryside.

When Jessamine County received a donated 1925 steam locomotive and coal car to display in a local park, they were moved at no cost to taxpayers by Mr. Corman's company. Mr. Corman also donated a red caboose that was once displayed in Carlisle and put down the section of track on which the train now rests in Riney B Park (the park is named for a railroad line) off the U.S. 27 bypass in Nicholasville.

In recent years, Mr. Corman and a partnership that included Clay Corman fought in the state and federal courts over a Nicholasville subdivision that the partnership developed near Mr. Corman's property. The parties reached a settlement, ending half a dozen lawsuits, last spring.

In January 2013, Craig King was named president of R.J. Corman Railroad Group. The former CSX executive succeeded Tammie L. Taylor, who was in a longtime relationship with Rick Corman. Upon King's hiring, Taylor was appointed vice chairman of the board of directors after 28 years with Corman Railroad Group.

Mr. Corman was "definitely loved in Jessamine County," said Judge-Executive William Neal Cassity.

Cassity said Mr. Corman helped out "when people needed food" or help burying relatives.

Perhaps less well-known to the public was Mr. Corman's strong support for Lexington's running community.

John Unger, a member of the Bluegrass Runners group, said Mr. Corman, himself a runner, hosted races on his property. He would "cook up burgers" for the runners and "give out cash to the winners," Unger said.

Several people remembered Mr. Corman for his giving spirit.

Mr. Corman and his company were the largest philanthropic supporters of St. Joseph Hospital. They provided the money to establish the St. Joseph-Jessamine R.J. Corman Ambulatory Care Center in Nicholasville in 2009. And the company provided a gift to the St. Joseph Hospital Foundation to bring digital mammography services to the Nicholasville center in 2013. The gift, made in honor of Corman's sister, created the Sandra J. Adams Digital Mammography Suite, and officials expect to perform 10,000 mammograms over the next 10 years.

Late Friday, officials with Saint Joseph Hospital Foundation, part of KentuckyOne Health, issued a statement saying they were mourning the loss of Mr. Corman, the "largest philanthropic supporter in Saint Joseph history."

"Rick Corman and his legacy are so important to the Saint Joseph Hospital Foundation, and his friendship was very special for us," Barry A. Stumbo, the president and CEO of Saint Joseph Hospital Foundation, said in the statement. "We will always be extremely grateful to Rick for enhancing the health for thousands of our patients and families. The impact of his loss will be felt in the community for years to come."

Cancer always looming

Mr. Corman's cancer was discovered in 2001, after he felt excruciating pain in his back while running in a park in Amsterdam, the Netherlands. He had taken some friends and relatives there to see the blooming of the tulips.

He underwent a stem-cell bone marrow transplant in November 2001 at Harvard University's Dana-Farber Cancer Institute in Boston. Mr. Corman told the doctors later, "For every year that I keep coming back up here, I will donate 'X' dollars for your research. When I stop coming up here, so will the money."

It was at Dana-Farber that Mr. Corman would become friends with Ferraro, who in 1984 became the first female vice-presidential candidate for a major party when Democrat Walter Mondale picked her as his running mate.

A second stem-cell bone marrow transplant was performed on Mr. Corman in June 2008.

Mr. Corman, business associates said, was successful in part because he could anticipate the future. But in terms of his health, he also knew that one day his cancer would finally overcome.

"The disease I have is sitting, waiting at a stop sign," he said in a 2006 interview with the Herald-Leader. "It keeps looking, looking, looking. One day, it will decide to move again when it thinks the time is right. If it comes back, it will come back with a vengeance."

In April 2011, a scan indeed found that the disease had returned. Mr. Corman's doctor thought the relapse had occurred as a result of Mr. Corman's temporarily stopping his chemotherapy after he broke his collarbone in a snowmobile accident.

In early August 2011, Mr. Corman fell after getting out of bed while trying to stop a leg cramp. He broke two ribs. After being treated at a Lexington hospital, he was released later that morning and went back home to rest.

While he was home, his ribs were bleeding and his lung was punctured on the left side. He was rushed by ambulance back to the hospital for a six-day stay. He began another round of chemotherapy in September 2011 as doctors hoped to get the myeloma back into remission so Mr. Corman could have a third bone marrow transplant.

But by July 2012, plans for the transplant had been put on hold because the Dana-Farber doctors thought it was better managed through medication, according to the periodic medical updates that were posted on the Corman company's website.

On Thursday, officials posted on the company website that Mr. Corman was in serious condition and asked for prayers for him. Friday morning's news that Mr. Corman lost his bout with cancer rocked much of the state. He was remembered by many as a philanthropist, a savvy businessman, a pillar of his community and a friend.

"He was remarkably tenacious in everything he did, from building up his business to fighting the cancer that threatened his health for years. He leaves a legacy of community service and a Kentucky-grown railroad empire, as well as legions of friends," said Kentucky Gov. Steve Beshear.

Services for Mr. Corman

Visitation for Mr. Corman will be from 1 p.m. to 8 p.m. Sunday in Hangar 1 on the property of R.J. Corman Railroad Group, 101 R.J. Corman Drive, Nicholasville. Funeral services will be at 4 p.m. Monday, also at the hangar; the front gate will be open at 2:30 p.m.

In lieu of flowers, donations are requested to the Richard Corman Research Fund in Multiple Myeloma, Dana-Farber Cancer Institute, P.O. Box 849168, Boston, MA 02284-9168.


"What can you say about a business icon? Anytime I asked R.J. Corman for help, advice or support, the answer was yes. Jessamine County and, by extension, Kentucky have lost someone very special. My wife, Deirdre, and I have lost someone whom we consider to be an unsung hero." Pearse Lyons,founder and president of Alltech

"I have admired him as much as anyone I have met in the state of Kentucky. He is a man with great passion and fortitude, has been a wonderful friend and he will be sorely missed in our state. My deepest sympathy goes out to his family." Rick Pitino,University of Louisville men'sbasketball coach

"By any definition Rick was the American success story ... up-from-the-bootstraps, an unforgettable character, with a vigorous, charitable spirit and unshakable passion for life. He will be missed." Lexington MayorJim Gray

"Jane and I are saddened by the loss of our close friend, Rick Corman. Rick was a highly successful self-made businessman. He was remarkably tenacious in everything he did, from building up his business to fighting the cancer that threatened his health for years. He leaves a legacy of community service and a Kentucky-grown railroad empire, as well as legions of friends. We will miss him terribly, and our thoughts are with his family at this difficult time." Gov. Steve Beshear

"Elaine and I are deeply saddened by the passing of our dear friend, Rick Corman. Rick was a proud Kentuckian and successful businessman. He was one of the most remarkable people I have known and he never forgot where he came from or the lessons he learned about hard work and honesty. Our thoughts and prayers go out to Rick's family and friends. He will be missed." U.S. Sen. Mitch McConnell, R-Ky.

"His legacy of compassion and generosity will live on through his many contributions to our Commonwealth. Carol and I extend our deepest condolences to his family, friends and to the thousands of Americans who lost a compassionate and dedicated employer." U.S. Rep. Andy Barr, R-Lexington

"He has been a leader statewide and in Jessamine County, particularly. I will remember the job fair he had a few years ago. That's the kind of thing that brings hope to people." State Sen. Kathy Stein, D-Lexington

"His contribution to Kentucky is enormous. He was well thought of by members of both parties in the General Assembly, and his larger-than-life personality will be missed." State Senate Majority Leader Damon Thayer, R-Georgetown

-- Compiled by Herald-Leader staff writers Jack Brammer, Janet Patton, Jerry Tipton and Valarie Honeycutt Spears

Greg Kocher: (859) 231-3305. Twitter: @HLpublicsafety. Valarie Honeycutt Spears: (859) 231-3409. Twitter: @vhspears

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